The Epistles of Erasmus

Date: 1901–1904

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Chapter XLII a Scholar of the Renaissance



The Life of Erasmus


Erasmus was born in the early years of the reign of your great-grandfather Frederick III, at Rotterdam in Holland. . . . As his birthplace the town of Rotterdam will always be entitled to the reverence of the learned. The next praise is claimed by Deventer, where he had his education, having been before a choir boy in Utrecht cathedral, where after the custom of such churches he had been employed for the sake of his small, high-pitched voice. . . . The ability of Erasmus was soon shown by the quickness with which he understood, and the fidelity with which he retained, whatever he was taught, surpassing all the other boys of his age. Among the brothers, as they were called, who are not monks but like them in their mode of living and their simple and uniform dress, was John Sintheim, a man of good learning for that time. . . . Sintheim was so delighted with the progress of Erasmus, that on one occasion he embraced the boy, exclaiming, "Well done, Erasmus, the day will come when thou wilt reach the highest summit of erudition"; and having said this, dismissed him with a kiss. Every one will admit that his prophecy came true.

Erasmus soon after lost both his parents; and by the persistence of his guardian, who wished to shake off the burden of his charge, he was thrust from the school of Deventer into a monastery near Delft. In that place he had for several years as a partner in study, William Herman of Gouda, a youth devoted to literature. Assisted and encouraged by this companionship, there was no volume of the Latin authors that Erasmus did not peruse. By day and by night the two youths were employed in study; and the time that others of their age spent idly in jesting, sleeping, and feasting, these two devoted to poring over books and practicing their pen. The bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, having heard of his fame, invited Erasmus, after he had been ordained, to join him, when he was himself preparing to visit Rome. He saw in Erasmus a person endowed with cultivated manners and of great ability in learning and eloquence. It was evident that such a companion would be creditable as well as useful, in case of any intercourse or correspondence with the pope or cardinals. Some circumstance, however, which I cannot explain, prevented the bishop from undertaking this journey. . . . Although the bishop changed his mind about going to Italy, he still kept Erasmus in his court, being delighted with the charm and distinction of his character. . . .

After a time the bishop, taking into consideration the happy genius of Erasmus, furnished him with the means of going to Paris and applying himself to scholastic theology. . . . When he found the college life too hard, he was glad to remove to the house of an English gentleman. . . . It was then that Erasmus became known in England, to which island he shortly afterwards went, being invited by his pupils who had returned home. He returned to England afterwards more than once and taught for some time in the university of Cambridge; as he did also at Louvain.

At last by the persuasion of friends, having always had a strong desire to see Italy, he went to Bologna. . . . In Erasmus’s journey he was made a doctor of theology at Turin, together with his English traveling companion. Thus he carried with him into Italy the dignity as well as the erudition which others are wont to bring back from that country. At Bologna he finished the volume of Adages which had been begun some years before. . . .

When this work was completed, he wrote to Aldus Manutius1 to ask him whether he would undertake the printing of it, to which he willingly consented. Erasmus then removed to Venice. . . . His stay at Venice lasted a considerable time, since he revised and republished there two tragedies of Euripides, Hecuba and I phigenia in Aulis, and corrected the comedies of the Roman dramatists, Terence and Plautus, with special regard to the meters. . . .

After leaving Italy he visited his friends at Antwerp and Louvain and presently crossed to England, to which he was attracted by his love of Colet the theologian, who was dean of St. Paul’s in London, and of Grocin, Latimer, and Linacre, and especially of Thomas More. His patron was William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, and chancellor of the kingdom, that is, supreme judge, who surpassed all the bishops of that island in liberality. He gave Erasmus money, and also presented him to the living of Aldington in Kent. This he had some scruple at first in accepting, considering that the entire emoluments rather belonged to the pastor, whose business it undeniably was to be present night and day to instruct the people placed under his charge; but the archbishop met his hesitation with the following question: "Who," said he, "has a fairer claim to live out of a church income than yourself, the one person who by your valuable writings instruct and educate the pastors themselves, and not them alone but all the churches of the world, which they severally direct and serve?" Certainly, I have more than once heard Erasmus say that princes ought to assist scholars by their own liberality, whereas in order to spare their purses they were accustomed to present them to benefices, which the followers of learning were compelled to accept, if they wished to secure leisure for their studies. . . .

The students of France and Germany required a separate edition of the New Testament in Greek. Erasmus had formerly written some notes upon it, and having found them among his papers he revised and extended them in great haste amid the bustle of the press. There were some who thought the Latin version itself required correction, being a work written or rather translated, as may be presumed, for the general body of Christians; and with this demand he showed his usual readiness to comply. The whole book he dedicated to Pope Leo X, and with good reason, the principal document of our religion being inscribed to its presiding chief. The revised works of St. Jerome, which he helped to prepare, were dedicated to Archbishop Warham, as an everlasting memorial of extraordinary respect. . . .

Erasmus afterwards came back to Basel with the intention of reëditing the Adages and finishing the Paraphrases of St. Paul and the Gospels. It is doubtful whether the applause with which these works were received by the world of readers was greater than the pleasure which he took in writing them. "Here," said he, "I am on my own ground." And so he was. His chief study was of the old interpreters: among the Latins, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Hilary; among the Greeks, Chrysostom and his imitator Theophylact. Only the style was his own. . . .

In stature Erasmus was . . . not a tall man. His figure was compact and elegant. He had a constitution extremely delicate, and easily affected by trifling changes, as of wine or food or climate. As he advanced in years he became subject to frequent attacks of catarrh, which is so common and constant a complaint with studious people. His complexion was fair, with hair that in his younger days had a touch of red, bluish grey eyes, and a lively expression of face; his voice was not strong, his language beautifully explicit, his dress respectable and sober, as became an imperial councilor and a clergyman. He was most constant in his attachments, no inscription on his list of friends being ever on any account changed. His memory was most retentive. He had learned as a boy the whole of Terence and Horace by heart. He was liberal to the poor, among whom, as he came home from mass, as well as on other occasions, he used to distribute money by his servant. He was especially generous and kind to any young and promising students who came to him in want of help.

1 , translated and edited by F. M. Nichols. London, 1901–1904. 2 vols. Longmans, Green and Co.

2 Nichols, Epistles, vol. i, pp. 25–37.

1 The famous Venetian printer, and publisher of the "Aldine Classics."

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Chicago: F. M. Nichols, ed. and trans., The Epistles of Erasmus in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 449–452. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . The Epistles of Erasmus, edited and translated by F. M. Nichols, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 449–452. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: (eds and trans.), The Epistles of Erasmus. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.449–452. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from